The age-old concern of the trustworthiness of industry funded research has once again received increased attention in the news. It’s a topic the International Food Information Council Foundation has addressed repeatedly over its 20 years of existence and the questions remain the same: Is industry-funded research as trustworthy and credible as other research? How does one determine when research can be relied upon in the first place?
The questions arise out of the robust and evolving discussions that scientists, public health advocates, and others continue to have on issues like obesity and weight management, the role of fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and other nutrients in the human diet, food safety, and more. All of the individuals and groups involved have varying opinions and perspectives—some supported by research, and some not. Trustworthy, credible research has been subjected to the rigors of the scientific process, including peer review.
Recently, some of the most respected scientists and organizations in the nutrition and food safety fields have been criticized due to their connections with industry. These scientists and organizations produce many peer-reviewed papers and articles that have been published in highly respected scientific journals. Funding for scientific research can come from a variety of sources including industry and government, among others. What makes a given study trustworthy is not the funding mechanism but the scientific process; adherence to valid and reliable procedures in designing, executing, and analyzing the research, and the peer review mechanism.
In fact, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-supported scientific organization, commissioned a paper on this very issue entitled, “Funding food science and nutrition research: financial conflicts and scientific integrity.” ILSI’s paper was peer-reviewed and published simultaneously in six scientific journals in 2009 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19386030 ). That paper proposes guidelines for managing not only financial but political, philosophical, and other potential sources of bias. The following is a direct quote from ILSI’s paper:
“The multiplicity and variety of sources of bias in research and in public health communications generally are extensive, complex, and yet of major importance to scientific research, the integrity of individual study, and the body of scientific literature as a whole. Strategies must be developed to address and manage all sources of bias, whether technical, statistical, cognitive, or emotional in origin. These are critically necessary, not just for the scientific community, but also for the well-being of the public. The interpretation of health research and the promotion of public policies resting on that research are far too important to be based on formulas that would address conflicts at the price of excluding the input of a large proportion of food-safety and nutrition scientists.”
When questions about industry funding arise anew, such as: “Why should the public trust industry-funded science?” or “Is industry-funded science biased or otherwise unreliable?” it is important to keep the following key points in mind:
A scientist’s work must stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. If it does, then it is reliable and trustworthy, no matter what entity pays for the research. Of course, funding disclosure and other potential sources of bias should always be included as part of a research paper so that readers can make their own assessments of a paper’s credibility.
Some might ask why industry funding for research is needed at all. It is important to note that much, if not most, scientific research on nutrition and food safety (and for that matter on everything) is funded privately, by industry or other private sector organizations. The public would not be well served and innovations and new discoveries would rapidly decline if such research were disregarded or completely eliminated.
Scientific Credibility Resources
With so much confusion over the issue of credibility in science, the IFIC Foundation, funded by the broad-based food industry, sought to find ways to clarify the science and help the public separate fact from opinion. More than a decade ago, IFIC and the Harvard School of Public Health produced a set of guidelines for communicators of nutrition, food safety, and health research — guidelines that have been widely distributed and adopted by academics, industry researchers, journalists, and others interested in food and health.
The Harvard-IFIC Foundation Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety & Health remain a key resource with questions for various communicators to consider when evaluating emerging research. The questions about industry funding in research will certainly continue as long as there is debate over nutrition and food safety issues. As discussions about food and health become increasingly publicized and scrutinized it is more important than ever to keep the tenets of reliable and credible science in mind.